Sri Lanka Puts Rajapaksa in his Place

Sri Lanka can breathe a collective sigh of relief with the defeat of the United People’s Freedom Alliance in parliamentary elections held August 17.

The election was simply a referendum on former strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa, who conceded defeat after a close-fought comeback bid just months after he was toppled as president – and shortly after he was released from prison.

"My dream of becoming prime minister has faded away," Rajapaksa told AFP. "I am conceding. We have lost a good fight." Rajapaksa remains an unhappy soul as his strenuous efforts to capture power from President Sirisena have failed.

Rajapaksa accepted that his party had lost even before Elections Chief Mahinda Deshapriya could announce the final results. "We have won eight districts and the UNP (ruling United National Party) has 11 (out of a total of 22)," Rajapaksa said. "This means we have lost. It was a difficult fight."

Rakapaksa ruled Sri Lanka for more than nine years. He was often criticized in the West for alleged human rights abuses during Sri Lanka’s protracted civil war against the Tamil Tigers, which came to a close in May 2009 after more than 25 years. He remained a divisive figure after the defeat of the Tamils, allowing little quarter for them and providing little in the way of reconstruction for the devastated region.

Current President Maithripala Sirisena has made dramatic strides in moving the country back onto a democratic footing since he was elected. He has been highly critical of the former strongman, yet allowed him to run as a member of his own party in the polls, which sought contestants to compete for 225 seats in the parliament.

If Rajapaksa had won, he was expected to replace the current prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is expected to be sworn in again to form a new government shortly, officials said. A victory would have put Rajapaksa in a position to thwart Sirisena’s continuing plans for rapprochement with the minority Tamils and to switch government policy away from nonalignment to a romance with China. Many outsiders see the elections as a crucial litmus test for Sri Lanka’s broader re-engagement with the rest of the world.

Under Sirisena, Sri Lankan relations with China, the country’s largest inbound investor, have cooled dramatically. Almost immediately after assuming office, the new government effectively halted several major planned and ongoing infrastructure projects that were funded by Chinese government lending, over claims of corruption and high interest rates that have saddled the government with a public debt-to-GDP ratio of 85 percent.

Sirisena served as Mahinda Rajapaksa’s secretary of health but quit the government to challenge him. The change in governing style is dramatic. He has promised he would serve only one term. He has reached out to the Muslim and Tamil minorities that were repressed by the Rajapaksas and sought to reverse the poisonous sectarian atmosphere that prevailed after the bitter Sinhalese victory. Nonetheless, reconciliation between the Sinhalese Buddhists and the Tamils is enormously difficult. That can be seen in the fact that no party appears to have secured an absolute majority of 113 seats in the 225-member parliament, forcing the new government to seek out smaller allies. Election Commissioner Deshapriya said he expected the release of the final party positions by midday Aug. 18, while individual votes garnered by candidates would be announced later.

Rajapaksa did secure a seat in the 225-member parliament by standing from the north-western district of Kurunegala after ditching his home constituency of Hambantota, where three of his close family members contested. He remains hugely popular among big sections of the majority Sinhalese community for presiding over the crushing defeat of Tamil guerrillas in 2009 after their war for a separate homeland. He retained support in the Sinhalese heartland in the island's south, but lost out in urban areas.

Since his surprise victory over his former mentor-dictator, Sirisena has struggled to impose his authority over his United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) party and was powerless to prevent Rajapaksa from standing as one of its candidates. He threatened to invoke his executive powers to prevent his combative predecessor from becoming prime minister, but Rajapaksa was banking on a strong showing to force Sirisena to back down.

Speaking after he voted in Colombo, Wickremesinghe told reporters that he was confident of forming a new government that could "consolidate the January 8 revolution," a reference to Sirisena's victory, which he supported earlier this year. Wickremesinghe described the vote as a referendum on whether the 15.04 million electorate wanted Rajapaksa to return to politics after a decade in power.

Rajapaksa’s defeat is a resounding victory for Sirisena personally and a clear signal for his exit and an end to his dream of making his son the next president of Sri Lanka. At the very least, it consigns him to the back benches. What exactly Rajapaksa would do after two consecutive defeats remains to be seen.